We have considered the questions about what the angels were doing and saying on the morning of the resurrection. Let’s take a look at the troubling apparent contradictions found in Mary Magdalene’s activities, and also those of Jesus himself.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels. New Testament scholars call them by that name because they are very similar in their content. Anyone who has given a cursory glance at these three gospels can readily see how similar they are.
But John’s gospel is different than the others. It does not contain any parables. And it is more theological than the Synoptics. So, we would expect to see wide agreement between the Synoptics concerning the details of the resurrection—which we do, especially in the sayings of the angels to the women as they perplexedly stood in the empty tomb.
John says that “on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb” (John 20.1). That comports with what the other gospel writers say—except that John does not mention the other women. Does not that lead us to a necessary contradiction? Not at all. All the gospel writers have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb very early in the morning. Just because John does not mention the others does not necessarily mean they were not there.
But then John says that Mary ran off to go and get Peter and John. The Synoptics do not mention Mary running off. Does that mean that a necessary contradiction exists here? Again, not at all. We can reasonably infer that all the women went together to the tomb, and when they found it empty, Mary Magdalene was so stricken with grief and perplexity, that she left the others to go and fetch Peter and John. Luke does say that the women were very perplexed. Mary Magdalene must have left the women there at the tomb, before they saw and heard the angels telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead.
So while Mary Magdalene was gone, the angels declared to the other women that Jesus was resurrected. The other women left the tomb in great joy before Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John. By the time Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John, the tomb was silent and empty, just as it was when all the women had arrived there at the first.
There is an interval of time and events between John 20.1 and John 20.2. From Mary Magdalene’s perspective, the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body had been taken away, by whom she did not know. Peter and John arrived at the tomb to see it was empty. Luke has Peter at the tomb, but not John. But again, if Luke reports that Peter was there but did not mention John, that does not leave us with a necessary contradiction. Remember that Peter was the first to confess Jesus as Messiah, and thus Jesus gave Peter the pre-eminent position among the disciples (Matthew 16.17-19). It was logical for Luke to mention Peter, but not to mention John.
After Peter and John departed the tomb in confusion, John says that Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping. It is at this time that Mary looks into the tomb and sees two angels. Remember that Mary had not seen the angels yet, because she was not present with the other women when the angels appeared previously. So they ask her, “Why are you weeping?” She answers that she does not know where Jesus’ body is.
It is at this time that Jesus himself appeared to Mary, but she does not recognize him, but thinks he is the gardener. But he reveals himself to her, and tells her to and tell the disciples that he is alive.
Then Jesus appeared to the other women while they were en route from the tomb to Galilee to report back to the disciples, as the angels had instructed them from inside the tomb. How did Jesus get to them so fast, you ask? We know that Jesus had a glorified body—he could appear in unrecognizable forms; he could move through locked doors; and his body still bore the scars from the nails and the thrust of the spear as he hung on the cross three days earlier. So his speedy appearance between two places does no violence at all to the narrative. In fact, it lends it further credibility.
Thus, we see no necessary contradictions in the resurrection accounts in the gospels. As long as we can provide reasonable alternatives to resolve the apparent contradictions, we can demonstrate that no necessary contradictions are present. In fact, we can have reasonable certainty that the gospel accounts offer a coherent narrative of the events of the resurrection.
This means that when we place our faith in Jesus Christ as the resurrected Lord and God, we are making a reasonable epistemic choice. We are not taking an irrational leap of faith into the darkness. We can affirm, with the Apostle Paul as he was reflecting on whether or not Christ was raised: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep, for since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15.20-21).
In Part IV, we will summarize our findings.